Visitors watch an interactive visual interface at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2017 in Guiyang, capital of southwest China’s Guizhou Province, on May 25, 2017 (XINHUA)
A booming digital economy is reshaping China's economic landscape as the spread of technology such as big data and artificial intelligence (AI) revives traditional industries and casts new light on high-quality development.
China's digital economy amounted to 22.58 trillion yuan ($3.43 trillion) in 2016, ranking second globally and accounting for around 30 percent of the country's GDP. Its growth of nearly 20 percent substantially outpaced the overall economy, which grew 6.7 percent in 2016.
This trend looks likely to continue in the future and is expected to hit $16 trillion by 2035.
"The digital economy has become a core engine powering China's economic growth," said Pony Ma, founder of Internet giant Tencent.
Tencent has invested vast amounts of money into forging competitiveness in fintech and big data, and recorded strong growth in games, digital content, online advertising and payments in the third quarter of 2017.
"China is already more digitized than many observers appreciate and has the potential to define the world's digital frontier in coming decades," the McKinsey Global Institute said in a report.
As of June 2017, there were 3.89 billion Internet users around the world, of which 751 million were in China. The number of web users has created room for risk takers in e-commerce, mobile payments and other emerging areas to stretch their wings.
With leading online retailers Alibaba and JD.com, China is the world's largest e-commerce market, accounting for more than 40 percent of the value of worldwide transactions, up from less than 1 percent a decade ago. In terms of mobile payments, China has a transaction value 11 times that of the U.S.
"The digital economy is making a greater contribution to the national economy and rising as a new driver of economic transformation and upgrades," said Lin Xiunian, Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.
China's policymakers pledged to steer the economy onto a new path toward high-quality development rather than high-speed growth at the annual Central Economic Work Conference held from December 18 to 20, with digital technology set to be a major feature of the new economic plan, revitalizing sluggish sectors and creating new areas for growth.
China will look to foster new growth drivers, improve technological innovation, push for upgrades of traditional sectors and nurture innovative, leading businesses, according to a statement released after the meeting.
The government has rolled out an array of policies, such as Made in China 2025 and Internet Plus strategies, to spur the integration of Internet technologies and manufacturing, as well as other traditional sectors.
"After undergoing the process of digitization, businesses will see a 30-percent increase in production efficiency on average and a 20-percent drop in operation costs," the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said.
Wu Hequan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said big data technology would redefine numerous sectors including finance, medical care, manufacturing, logistics and transportation, and prompt automobile, education and tourism enterprises to form new business models.
The food delivery branch of Meituan Dianping, China's largest group deals site, employs around 500,000 couriers, 31 percent of whom come from declining traditional industries and 10 percent from poor areas.
"Our services create employment and value, and represent the future of the economy," said Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan Dianping.
The digital economy is backed by numerous homegrown Chinese tech firms which have evolved from followers to leaders in the international tech community.
The McKinsey report says that China's three Internet giants—Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent—are building a rich digital ecosystem and driving technical performance such as computing efficiency to set new world-class standards.
Investment has also poured in. According to the report, in 2016 China was in the top three in the world for venture-capital investment in key types of digital technology, including autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, robotics, drones and AI.
One in three of the world's 262 unicorns, startups valued at more than $1 billion, is Chinese, commanding 43 percent of the global value of these companies.
The government has promised tax breaks, financing support and other favorable policies to help innovative firms sprout and grow, and expects to see more domestic players able to take on international rivals.
"China is already a global digital economy, and it is going to have a greater impact on the global digital world," said Jonathan Woetzel, senior partner at McKinsey.
This is an edited excerpt of an article originally published by Xinhua News Agency
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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